Monday, May 19
It snowed here not thirty minutes ago. This is O’Cebreiro, a name that conjures up images of an imposing stone town at the peak of an isolated mountain, with an ominous ring of clouds overhead. The town is indeed stone, but it’s charming rather than frightening. Even now in the cold and fog, though it’s difficult to explore, it’s far less menacing than the image I held in my imagination.
The road today was a long one at 30 kilometers, with two separate and challenging climbs. We were told it would be cold and rainy, but it was neither. After breakfast we left Villafranca del Bierzo by the steep route to Alto Pradela, 400 meters up. Alejandro, Miguel, and I charged ahead while the others took a more reasonable stride. The beginning was steep; a reminder of the initial trial-by-fire that was the Pyrenees, except that this route was lined with trees. Later it became more graceful, with the path winding broadly across the mountainside and offering wide views of the valley below.
I found myself thinking of those who’d chosen the route that runs along the highway. For some it’s a matter of health, but others choose the easier route solely because it is easier.
To each their own Camino, they say. But for me, to choose the easy way is to choose a road paved with regret. It’s strange to say, but regret is a central motivator in my life. Or rather, avoiding regret. If I walked the easy road I’d doubt the choice with every step. So I couldn’t possibly go that way.
Regret is the worst pain of all. When someone leaves our lives, we mourn the loss. But worse than the pain of loss is the pain of things left unsaid. The proper goodbye that never happened. And so it goes with everything else. The regret when you wanted to say, “I love you,” but didn’t. The regret of not standing up for yourself when someone wronged you. The regret of not apologizing when you wronged another.
Why am I on the Camino? Why now? Because I could have pushed it off for all eternity. There would always have been something in my career or in my life that would have taken precedence over the Camino. But I can’t stand the notion that I might find myself living my last moments of old age with this regret on my lips: “I never went on the Camino. I wish I’d made time for that.”
So I took the hard way.
It was rewarding. There are two kinds of joy I’ve experienced today and yesterday. Once in VIllafranca del Bierzo, sitting outside the bar while one friend played with the barkeep’s dogs, and another sang her favorite songs in a voice as beautiful and elegant as a lily. A drink in my hand; the blue sky overhead; nowhere to go.
The other was the joy of reaching the top of the mountain after a difficult climb with 23 pounds of equipment weighing me down.
I ended up on a detour through the small town of Pradela, because the yellow arrows pointed that way even though it wasn’t necessary. Unless you need to visit the bar, you can hug left at the fork instead of right and carry on. Still, the small valley the town overlooks was beautiful in the sunlight. Great fields and meadows and farmers tending the soil.
I reunited with Alejandro there, and then with the rest of the group soon after. We descended and began the long trek through a valley carved by the Rio Valcarce along a road. We passed through several lovely pueblos before beginning the steep climb to O’Cebreiro. The rough stone path through the forest, leading first to La Faba, reminded me of the ascent to Upper Yosemite Falls. Which is to say, it was pretty brutal. We all reunited at La Faba and then carried on, separating again as our paces varied. Here the path rose more gradually, gently riding the curvature of the mountains and passing into Galicia. A few kilometers later we reached O’Cebreiro as the sky turned darker and the air colder.
As the fog rolled in and the air chilled we ran to the nearest restaurant to eat. Caldo Gallego for me, and also a Galician stew. Another simple but deep joy — warm soup on a cold day after a hard walk. All totaled I think we climbed some 1100 meters today, broken down between the first peak and the second.
So much of the road here reminds me of California. And I know that I’m only a week from Santiago, and a few days more until Finisterre. It begins to feel like I’m walking towards home. I wonder what it will be like to return to Los Angeles. What will it be like when the Camino is over, and I’m left to digest it all in my mind? People like to say that although this Camino ends, the Camino of your life goes on. I appreciate the poetry but I find it too convenient — it seems like a mantra we use to protect ourselves from a difficult thought.
An older Spaniard in Ponferrada told me that the truth of how the Camino continues is more concrete and less poetic; When I return, I’ll have all these experiences swirling in my mind and in my heart. In time it will settle into something. I don’t know what.